CXO

How can I hold staff to deadlines when I?m not their boss?

It's difficult for project managers when they are responsible for the project but not the people. Project management mentor Tom Mochal offers strategies that will help you direct the project and the people assigned to complete it.


TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. Mochal shares member questions and the answers he provides in a column each month. So often, IT pros tell TechRepublic that they receive the most insight when they learn about real-life situations that other IT pros are facing.

Question
As a project manager in our organization, I find it very difficult to manage the project when I have no authority over the members of my team. How do I hold them to deadlines without this authority? I am not a functional manager in our organization but am managing several projects.-GC

Answer
GC: You are not alone in this frustration. In most organizations, the project manager is responsible for the project but not necessarily responsible for the people, who still belong to a functional manager of some kind. If you have the project team assigned to you full time, then you come close to having control. If the team members are not assigned to you full time, then this becomes more difficult.

From an organizational perspective, if the people do not report to you as a functional manager, then you are probably operating in some type of matrix structure. (For more on matrixed organizations, see “Managing people in a matrixed organization.") The matrix makes the most efficient use of people resources, but it can also be very challenging on the part of project managers.

So how do you manage projects in this environment? A few thoughts come to mind.

From the people side, although the team does not report to you functionally, their work on the project should still be included in their overall performance review. So, you can try to hold people accountable by making sure team members understand that you will be providing their functional manager with feedback on their job performance. This strategy should also be agreed to and supported by the functional managers. (You may or may not have the ability to make this happen in your organization.) You can also discuss project performance with the functional managers. If people are not meeting deadlines, then perhaps a combination of feedback from you and the functional manager is needed.

Of course, also on the people side, you must make an evaluation as to why people are not meeting deadlines. If it is because of a lack of skills, this should be addressed through training or replacement resources. If it is because they don’t fully understand the expectations you have, then you may have some changes to make as well.

From a process side, there are project management techniques and processes that should be utilized. First of all, if the availability and performance of the team is in doubt, you should raise this issue early as a project risk. As part of risk management, you need to put a proactive plan in place to make sure that this risk is addressed.

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When people miss their deadlines, you may need to raise an issue and perform issues management by trying to determine the cause of the problem. Are they missing deadlines because they are being pulled from your project to do other work, such as application support? If so, this may need to be addressed one way. Are they missing dates because the initial estimates were too low? If so, then that problem needs to be addressed another way. Are they missing dates because of performance problems? Again, that needs to be addressed a third way, with the help of the functional managers. Since you don’t have authority over the resources, you may need to get help from the functional managers and human resource department to effectively deal with performance problems.

In addition, make sure your team members are communicating proactively with you. In many cases, it’s not the fact that people miss their deadlines that gets us frustrated. It’s that they never tell us or give us warning. If a team member has a deliverable due at the end of the week, but then they get pulled into a three-day resolution of a production problem, they need to let you know so you can take any appropriate actions. If they just miss the date and do not communicate, then they are not managing expectations as they should. By the same token, you need to communicate proactively as well to ensure that they understand dates and expectations. Also communicate proactively with the functional managers and make sure they know when there are resource sharing issues or people performance issues.

In summary, matrix management involves a complex and delicate balancing act between project managers and people managers. The project manager always has limited people management authority in these situations. And yet it is possible to complete your projects successfully. There are many project management processes and techniques that can help. Utilize them to raise risks and issues early and often. Also make sure you utilize the project sponsor. After all, it is their project. They can help you generate the urgency and focus, and they can also have an impact on the functional managers to make sure that you, and their project, are successful.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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